Advocates call at-home rape kit a ‘spectacularly bad idea’

A controversial product called the MeToo sexual assault evidence kit, which promises to allow sexual assault survivors to collect evidence at home, is under fire from advocates and attorneys.

“I think they're just a spectacularly bad idea,” said Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.

Advocate Leah Griffin is cautioning the kit makers to rethink the product, which the company aims to launch this year.

“It would be traumatizing to survivors,” Griffin said. “It would be worthless in a court of law.”

Griffin is a survivor herself.

“In 2014, I was raped,” Leah Griffin said. “I went to the closest emergency room, walked in, told them what happened. They shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘We don't do rape kits here.’”

After her sexual assault, she vowed to improve the system. Griffin is determined to make rape kits and the trained nurses who utilize them more accessible to survivors.

“It's an incredibly lonely and terrifying situation,” she said. “And having somebody to guide you through the system is absolutely essential.”

So she was disappointed to hear about the MeToo kit, which claims to allow survivors to collect their own evidence in the crucial 72 hours before DNA degrades.

“Time is one of those things that you do not get after your sexual assault,” MeToo kit co-founder Madison Campbell said.

“I was a little horrified by the idea,” Griffin said, “because one, self-administering a sexual assault kit -- I can only imagine would be a horrific and traumatic experience.”

A sexual assault forensic exam, which is paid for by the state, involves gloves and swabs and can include multiple steps, including toxicology tests, photographs, and treatment for injuries.

“We indicate the time the evidence was collected and who collected it,” said Terri Stewart, manager of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program at Harborview Medical Center.

Last year, SANE nurses performed 550 of these exams across six King County hospitals, including Harborview.

“An average rape kit can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours,” Griffin said, “And it’s just extremely meticulous.”

Griffin isn't the only one criticizing the concept.

“I think they're just a spectacularly bad idea,” Mary Ellen Stone said.

She’s the Executive Director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.

Stone said SANE nurses also support survivors in crisis.

“It's responding to somebody who's in a state of shock or disbelief or panic,” Stone said. “So it's doing some stabilization of that person. It's also connecting them to resources.”

But when it comes to at-home collection, Stone is concerned.

“I can't imagine this could possibly hold up in court,” she said.

Courtroom admissibility is something Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett can speak to directly.

“In order to prosecute a sexual assault case, we have to be able to admit evidence in court,” Robnett said. “It's my view that this type of evidence, this type of collection, isn't going to be admissible in court.”

Robnett pointed to the importance of maintaining chain of custody.

“Typically in a chain of custody we document very carefully how the evidence was collected, who collected it, who held onto it, how it was tested, how it was handled,” she said.

Robnett said SANE nurses and crime lab technicians frequently testify about chain of custody in court.

With these kits, she said, the survivor would be taking on a whole new role.

“Not only testifying about what happened to them, but being responsible for all of the evidence that's collected,” Robnett said. “It's really putting a huge onus on the victim.”

So what does co-founder Madison Campbell have to say?

“Critics say this kit would actually be harmful to victims' cases,” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon said. “So how do you defend this product?”

“I think what would be harmful to victims is if you tell them that they don't have any choice but to go to a hospital,” Campbell said via Skype. “If individuals do not feel ready to go to a hospital, are you telling victims of sexual assault to throw away evidence?”

Campbell said she was sexually assaulted in 2016. She said the product is for survivors who don't go to the hospital.

“What about the concern that the evidence collected at home might be tainted in some way?” Sheldon asked.

“One, I would say that it's very important that the individual that was sexually assaulted is collecting any evidence at all,” Campbell said. “We've created a hardware and software technology to ensure that the individual understands how to collect DNA.”

Last year, multiple attorneys general spoke out about the kits, sending cease and desist letters to Campbell's company.

She said the criticism has only helped them improve the product, which it plans to launch this year by targeting universities and nonprofits.

“We're coming in because the system doesn't work for so many people,” she said.

“So why not work on improving the system itself? And making these nurses with their training more available to people?” Sheldon asked.

“Policy moves incredibly slowly,” Campbell said. “Why would I advocate for a system that doesn’t work when I can create something that might work?”

Leah Griffin said she is focused on improving the system.

She's working to pass the Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act to increase access to and funding for SANE nurses across the country.

“There are a lot of problems, but we're going to fix it,” she said.

Officials stress that even without a rape kit being done, survivors can still report sexual assaults.

Last year, the statute of limitations for reporting a rape of an adult (defined as 16 years old or older) increased from 10 to 20 years. But the change is not retroactive.

The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-888-99-VOICE (1-888-998-6423). Even if you’re not in King County, they can direct you to resources near you.